Anyone passing by room 450 at Georgia’s capitol on Monday probably thought lawmakers were talking about facial parts. The Senate Judiciary Committee was actually discussing CHINS—the acronym for Children in Need of Services—an important concept in the rewrite of the state’s juvenile code.
In the proposed code, expected to be introduced when the legislature convenes in 2011, the term would replace language in the current code about “status offenders.” The change is more than semantic.
Status offenses are acts that would not be crimes for adults, such as truancy or running away from home. Children who commit such offenses in Georgia can be classified as “unruly” or “ungovernable,” and under the current code can be detained “for days, weeks or even months in secure detention facilities,” according to a report prepared for the Senate committee by the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University School of Law.
The change in language and approach is an attempt to address the issues and institutions that contribute to problem behavior without resorting to the legal system.
“Labels are not helpful,” Sharon Hill, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy organization Georgia Appleseed, told the committee. “Labeling a child as a status offender, unruly, ungovernable, doesn’t get at what’s going on in that child’s life, that child’s family.”
Treating status offenders as children who need services could help keep many youths from “getting deeper and deeper into the juvenile justice system and ultimately into the adult prison system,” said Hill, a former Fulton County juvenile court judge.
The new approach would require that, in most cases, a multidisciplinary conference— possibly including parents, school officials, social workers, mental health professionals or other specialists—convene to form a family services plan. If the plan fails, the case would revert to court oversight. The proposed new code also provides that CHINS should receive services in the least restrictive environment possible.
Each county would determine who would be part of the conference, Hill said.
A string of additional witnesses appeared before the committee. None expressed philosophical opposition to the CHINS approach but had concerns about the resources required to implement it.
“This is important work,” said Wayne Drummond, executive director of the Georgia County Welfare Association, but he said he believes the Division of Family and Children Services (DFACS) should not always have to be the lead agency in the multidisciplinary approach. Placing that responsibility on DFACS without adding resources could diminish the agency’s ability to investigate child abuse and neglect cases and ultimately compromise the safety of some children, he said.
Bobby Cagle of DFACS concurred. “We are in support of the philosophy behind this change in law,” he said. “But all of this requires a lot of staff time, and when you’re talking about staff, you’re talking about money.”
Other speakers averred that the change would actually save money in the long run by keeping kids out of the expensive detention system.
Nobody really knows how much it would cost to implement CHINS, or whether some of the costs could simply be shifted. According to one estimate based on figures from a similar program in Massachusetts, the state would have to hire extra social workers at a cost of about 3-million dollars. Some of the expense might be offset by savings if the state detains fewer children, at an average cost of about $200 a day per child.
“We’re already serving these children,” said Judge Peggy Walker, a juvenile judge in Douglas County. “We’re just changing the name of what we call it, and changing how we do it.”
One speaker’s interest in the change is personal, not professional. “I want to tell you why I would support this,” said a DeKalb County father, who asked that his name not be used. He went on to describe the difficulty he has had with his son, who’s been in trouble at school, abused alcohol and drugs, and eventually ran away from home. “We were reticent to go to court,” he said, “but we wanted some kind of assistance.” His son, now 17, is still living away from home. He thinks a multidisciplinary approach might work for his son. Otherwise, he said, “there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Most of the 14 Senate Judiciary Committee members heard the discussion, and they’re expected to hold several more hearings before the legislature convenes in January.
A version of the juvenile code was introduced in April, 2009, as Senate Bill 292. That bill failed to make it through the legislative process by the end of the two-year term. It must be reintroduced in 2011.
The process of rewriting the state’s juvenile code began six years ago with a request from the late Judge Robin Nash, then President of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges. The Juvenile Law Committee of the State Bar of Georgia’s Young Lawyers Division took on the task, with funding from the Georgia Bar Foundation. In the meantime, a 2005 state legislative study committee began looking at the need for rewriting the code. And, in 2006, the Sapelo Foundation, based in Brunswick, pulled together Voices for Georgia’s Children, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, and Emory’s Barton Center into a new coalition called JUSTGeorgia, to advocate for children. JUSTGeorgia’s first major undertaking was the proposed new code.
Gayle White is a freelance reporter who spent 36 years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, covering politics, religion, health and courts